Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is facing a public backlash after he said the government would distribute two reusable cloth face masks per household amid growing concern over medical shortages as the country faces a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
The number of confirmed cases of the virus has spiked in recent weeks, after it appeared that Japan’s initial response had got the virus relatively under control. As of Wednesday, there were more than 2,300 cases across Japan, and 57 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
That spike has seen a raft of new restrictions put in place in Tokyo and other major cities, and a run on protective gear, including face masks. On Wednesday, Abe said the provision of cloth masks to the worst hit areas “will be helpful in responding to the rapidly increasing demand.”
But Abe’s proposal to send two masks to each household attracted outrage and mockery online Wednesday, with the hashtag “Abe’s mask” and “screw your two masks” trending on Twitter.
Many felt the move was lackluster and would not go into effect fast enough to have a chance at curbing the spread of the virus, with masks not due to be distributed until the end of the month. Others dubbed the policy “Abenomask policy” as satirical memes showing well-known cartoon characters sharing one mask between four family members popped up online.
The anger comes as Abe resisted calls Wednesday to declare a state of emergency, saying that use of such powers was not imminent.
A declaration of a state of emergency would allow prefectural governors to send out a stronger message when it comes to urging the public to stay at home, but the measures will not be legally binding.
Last week, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike urged residents in the city of roughly 13.5 million to telework where possible and avoid bars, restaurants and public gatherings up until April 12. Tokyo has now extended the closure of schools and public facilities like zoos and museums up until May 6.
Koike on Tuesday called on Abe to issue the national emergency declaration, after the capital recorded 78 new cases, its highest single-day jump so far.
Abe said the government would prioritize distributing masks to around 50 million households in areas where coronavirus infections have been spiking. The distribution will kick off later this month and each household with a registered postal address will receive the masks through the post, part of a wider coronavirus economic package that the government is rolling out.
Over the past week, Japan has scrambled to avert an explosive surge in infections. While the current tally stands at around 2,300 cases, Japan — a country of over 127 million people — has only tested just over 30,000, compared with 394,000 tests carried out in neighboring South Korea, which has a population of just over 51 million.
The apparently low infection rate has created what many experts fear is a false sense of security, with people still going out in public, some not wearing masks, to see cherry blossoms, a traditional spring pastime.
On Wednesday, medical experts warned that Japan’s healthcare system would not be able to bear the strain if coronavirus infections continued to spread.
A government panel warned that though Japan has not seen an explosive increase in infections so far, hospitals and medical clinics in Tokyo, Aichi, Kanagawa, Osaka and Hyogo were increasingly stretched and that “drastic countermeasures need to be taken as quickly as possible.”
Economic repercussions are also a concern. Earlier this week, Japan’s ruling party pledged to secure a 60 trillion yen ($556 billion) stimulus package to cushion an economy already hit by the postponement of the Olympics and coronavirus pandemic.
DIY masks amid shortages
While Abe’s cloth mask proposal was met with anger, Japan isn’t the only place mulling the use of improvised facial wear, amid widespread shortages in proper protective gear.
Mask use has been widespread in Asia since the beginning of the pandemic, but shortages and conflicting advice in many western countries has caused many people to go without, despite widespread evidence that masks help protect against the spread of the virus.
Cloth masks are not as effective as surgical masks or respirators, but they do offer limited protection and are easier to produce.
Across the US, people have been stepping up to create homemade masks for health care workers and other high risk populations amid widespread shortages and complaints from hospitals that they are not receiving supplies fast enough.
In March, US retailer JOANN Fabrics and Craft Stores released a video tutorial on how to make face masks. The retailer encouraged people to drop them off at store locations, where they will be donated to local hospitals.
But with a dwindling supply of N95 respirators and a surge in virus cases, healthcare facilities are bracing for the worst, and Japan may not be the last country to distribute cloth masks to its citizens.